Douglas & Olshaker (1997) define a serial killer as an individual who has murdered at least three people within a given time duration of at least a month, with a cooling off period in between the murders. Schlesinger (2000) asserts that the motivation for serial killing draws upon the psychological gratification. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a serial killing involves a series of at least two murders that are committed on separate occasions (Douglas & Olshaker, 1997). The FBI maintains that the motivation for serial killing involves attention seeking, financial gain, thrill and anger. It is imperative to differentiate serial killers from mass murderers, who murder at least four individuals simultaneously within relatively short time duration and in the same place. Serial killers are also differentiated from spree killers, who engage in multiple killings in multiple locations within relatively short time duration. According to Vronsky (2004), most serial killers tend to work alone and opt to commit murder for the sake of killing, which is contrary to the crime of passion. A recent study by the FBI pointed out that there were about 400 serial killers in the US during the 20th century, with about 2536-3860 victims. Nevertheless, there is no accurate method to determine the number of active serial killers at any instance; experts have hinted the number to be about 50-300, but there is no evidence to support this assertion.
Classification of Serial Killers
According to Vronsky (2004), serial killers can be classified basing on two factors: basing on the social and organizational patterns and basing on the motive. The classification basing on the motive is referred to as Holmes Typology. It is also imperative to note that not every serial murderer can be placed on a single group since many of them fall into several groups. With regard to Holmes typology, serial killers can be classified into either process-focused or act-focused. Act focused serial killers tend to kill quickly and believe that killing is only the act. Holmes typology further classifies act-focused serial killers into missionary and visionary serial killers. The visionary serial killers murder people because they have the visions or hear the voices that direct them to commit murders. Holmes & Holmes (1998) point that such serial killers tend to exhibit psychotic breaks from the elements of reality, and sometimes hold the believe that they are another individuals, or that they are forced to murder people by other entities such as God or the Devil. On the other hand, the missionary serial killers murder people since they are of the belief that they are tasked to eliminate the specific group of individuals. According to Holmes & Holmes (1998), they rationalize their actions by asserting that they are meant to change the society by eliminating some groups of individuals’ views as undesirable, such as prostitutes and homosexuals among others. Nevertheless, Holmes & Holmes (1998) maintain that mission-oriented serial killers do not exhibit psychotic characteristics.
Holmes & Holmes (1998) stipulate that the process-focused serial murders tend to enjoy the act of killing; as a result, they kill their victims slowly. They can be classified further into hedonists (gain, thrill and lust) and power seeking serial killers. The hedonistic serial killer is after thrills and pleasure by killing; as a result, they are of the belief that people are the dispensable means to achieving their goals. For the lust killers, killing provides a form of sexual pleasure. In addition, sexual gratification obtained from killing depends significantly from the degree of mutilation and torture they inflict on their victims. For the thrill killers, the main motive for killing is to inflict fear and pain in their victims; this stimulates and excites the killer. Holmes & Holmes (1998) assert that the thrill killer is after the adrenaline rush resulting from hunting and killing people. The Gain killers derive their motivation in the belief that they are likely to profit from the murder in some sort. An example of gain killers include the professional killers, commonly referred to as “hit men”, who earn money by being hired to kill. With regard to power/control serial killers, they have the primary intent of gaining and exercising the power over their victims. Holmes & Holmes (1998) point out that the power serial killers are mostly victims of child abuse, which left them with the feelings related to being powerless and inadequate as adults. In addition, most power and control-motivated serial killers tend to abuse their victims sexually; however, they are different from the lust killers in the sense that sexual abuse is motivated by the desire for sexual pleasure, but is perceived as a means of exercising dominance over the victim.
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The behavior of serial killers can also be used as a variable for classifying serial killers using their social and organizational skills. Hickey (2010) classified serial killers as either disorganized or organized (basing on the crime scene) and asocial or nonsocial (basing on whether they exclude themselves or the society excluded them. The FBI points out that the organized serial killers are the most complicated to spot and capture; this is because of their high intelligent levels and good self-discipline. Hickey (2010) states that the organized serial killers plan their crime in advance and take precautionary measures to ensure that no trace of evidence is left behind. The FBI Crime Classification Manual characterizes such killers as the ones having an above average intelligence and a mean Intelligence Quotient of 113 (Hickey, 2010). On the other hand, the disorganized serial killers have a below average intelligence and a mean Intelligence Quotient of 92.5. In addition, they are often impulsive and kill using a random weapon that is accessible at that particular instant (Hickey, 2010).
Motives for Serial Killers
A number of theoretical explanations have attempted to elucidate the motives behind serial killings. Vronsky (2004) asserts that there is single explanation for serial murders. The three possible theoretical explanations for serial killer motives include child abuse and neglect, brain injury, and mental illness.
Regarding abuse and neglect, Schlesinger (2000) points out that most serial killers are the victims of child neglect and abuse. According to Schlesinger (2000), in the course of child development, there are significant periods during which the child learns the aspects such as empathy, trust and love, as well as how to relate with other people. In the event that the children fail to learn these traits, it is highly unlikely that they will learn them at a later stage in life. In this regard, Schlesinger (2000) maintains that serial killers are often the victims of sexual or physical abuse when they were children.
Serial killer insanity is also another explanation for the motives of serial killers. Some researchers claim that the only way to account for serial killing is insanity. This is evident by that fact that most serial murderers tend to plead “not guilty” by citing insanity as defense. Some researchers have also hypothesized that most serial murderers have some sort of brain damage or injury, or biological abnormalities. Schlesinger (2000) asserts that an injury in the frontal lobe, the limbic system and the hypothalamus can result in severe aggression, violence, loss of judgment, and loss of control. For instance, Henry Lucas Lee, a serial killer charged with killing 11 people, was found to have a severe brain injury in the limbic system, hypothalamus and the frontal lobe.
This paper has discussed the classification and motives for serial killers. Serial killers can be classified basing on two factors: basing on the social and organizational patterns and basing on the motive. Serial killers can be classified into either process-focused or act-focused. Act focused serial killers tend to kill quickly and believe that killing is only the act. Holmes typology further classifies the act-focused serial killers into missionary and visionary serial killers. Process-focused serial murders tend to enjoy the act of killing; as a result, they kill their victims slowly. They can be classified further into hedonists (gain, thrill and lust) and power seeking serial killers. The three possible theoretical explanations for serial killer motives include child abuse and neglect, brain injury, and mental illness.